The Mormon fiction writer and self-censorship

Back in July I made the claim that most Mormon writers shouldn’t worry about the spectre of excommunication (and then complicated that with several caveats). Not everyone agrees with that assertion. And, to be sure, the climate for Mormon fiction writers is unevenly distributed and could change (and please note again: I’m talking about fiction writers — nonfiction is a different thing entirely). But assuming I’m right about that, does that mean the Mormon fiction writer is completely free to write what they want to write? Or will be they be tempted (or perhaps even coerced) into self-censorship? And is self-censorship always a very bad thing to do? What follows may be obvious, but I hope that by structuring my thought this way, it’ll be of some use in teasing out notions of self-censorship and Mormon fiction writing.

Writing is Communication

Writing fiction is an act of communication. But it’s a special act of communication: it’s one in which the author is demanding (or at least suggesting) attention. It’s saying: this is something I have created that is worth spending time (and money) on. It is an act of one-way communication, and the author sets the terms of the communication. Granted, especially in the age of the internet, readers can react to the work directly or indirectly with the author, but that’s not the same act of communication as what the novel or story or poem demands. There’s a level of formality in presenting a completed creative work. But the very nature of that process, that one-way act of ego means that the author has ultimate control of what goes in and what doesn’t go into a work. What doesn’t go in is self-censorship. It also may simply be good communication and good artistic creation.

All Writers Are Part of Communities

That writing is communication is especially true because very few writers create (or publish) in a vacuum. For all their introvertedness (a cliche, but one that so often fits), fiction writers are part of various communities and usually want community approval (or at least attention) for their creative work. Otherwise they’d write only for the drawer. Certainly, it’s complicated for writers in that they may prefer certain communities pay a certain kind of attention to their work over other communities (and other kinds of attention). And some communities you are born into and some you fall into and some you consciously choose. We all have family members, friends, peers, agents, editors, critics, community members, fellow fans/enthusiasts, neighbors, etc. It’s a complex melange that is constantly in flux. But being situated in communities means that there’s no such thing as a pure creative work-to-reader transaction. The creation, contents, packaging and distribution of creative work all happen within a welter of community concerns, attitudes, histories and relationships.

Mormon Writers & Community

I have mixed feelings about claims of Mormon exceptionalism. But I do think that in some ways Mormons may present a special case (or at least a different case) when it comes to self-censorship and community. It’s possible that issues of self-censorship might be more difficult for some Mormon writers to navigate. But I don’t know about that. While it’s true that Mormon writers may have to worry about busybody ward members and concerned bishops and inflexible stake presidents, it’s also true that very few writers are not part of a community (or communities) that have certain ideologies, sacred cows, discourse boundaries, etc. plus those who formally or informally boundary police the community. Very few writers have relationships only with people who think exactly like them. In very few instances is art going to not lead to the potential for friction. This is especially true of minority literatures where, like in Mormonism, you have communities that because of their minority status are concerned with how they are being presented outside of their community.

The big exception, of course, is that while other communities may shun or ignore writers who offend them, because Mormonism as a culture is interwoven so deeply with the LDS Church, the act of excommunication is somewhat more draconian than the way other communities police their boundaries. Although as I wrote in my previous post, it’s not clear that it’s something to be actively feared. And, of course, how draconian it feels as a threat is dependent on the fiction writer’s interest in remaining in good standing with the Church.

All Writers Self-Censor

Because writing is an act of communication and all writers are parts of communities, I believe that all writers self-censor. Self-censorship happens along many lines. Sometimes it’s self-censorship driven by fear of how people  will react to their work if it is published un-self-censored. Sometimes it’s self-censorship where the author realizes that they don’t actually want to communicate what they originally had thought they wanted to communicate or they need to do it in a different way because by doing so they will be able to better communicate with their audience (sometimes that comes because of feedback from a good editor). Sometimes it’s not a matter of fear of how people will react, but the realization that what your art may be pushing you towards isn’t going to lead to a fruitful ongoing relationship with people (or with the field as a whole or with your personal artistic legacy). And beyond that, I also believe that writers self-censor in what experiences they intake that fuel their creativity, and what projects they choose to focus on, and what forms they pour their creative energies into, and what world views (ideologies) they have active in their brain. All creative endeavor comes down to individual acts of selection that create a unique work. While there are times when that process is more self-conscious than others, and I do think that the initial act of writing fiction is usually better when it isn’t quite so self-conscious, the fact remains that all writers self-censor.

But What About Artistic Integrity?

What about artists being true to themselves? By giving into self-censorship aren’t they violating artistic integrity? Maybe. Like most things, it’s a matter of degrees. Some self-censorship could be a rather damaging violation of artistic integrity. But I think that’s less likely a problem than we might think*. Besides: I don’t believe in artistic integrity. I believe that art comes from struggle and conflict and that means it inherently doesn’t have integrity—it’s not a gestalt, a whole. It’s a process, a dialogue. And there might be formal or ideological or poetic or psychological concerns or models that work themselves into the struggle of creation that are actually leading your work in the wrong direction. Sometimes the ingredients in the alchemical process aren’t the right ones (or the right amounts). Changing up those ingredients might not be self-censorship. They might just be self-correcting.

And the problem with creating art is that it’s so easy to be dramatic and self-indulgent about it. To feel like what you have to say needs to be not only said but heard and only in a way that is true to your particular vision (at that particular point in time). The problem with that is that all of us who write fiction** are damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills using a set of vocabularies, syntaxes, narrative shapes, etc. That are also limited. And the problem with that is that our fiction goes out to damaged, ego-driven human beings with limited skills to interpret it. That’s what’s so scary about it and also what’s beautiful about it. It’s good to have a well-wrought final product. But I doubt that any final creative products are works of pure integrity.

And note that I haven’t touched yet on market concerns and how those impact fiction writing. That’s another seit of concerns that warps works of fiction (although very often not as much as one would think and sometimes in ways that are just fine). Note also that this post is only about self-censorship. Actual censorship is a different topic albeit one that can cause writers to self-censor***.

There Will Be Offense Taken

All of the above means both that whatever you do, you’re going to offend someone somewhere. And that whatever your artistic vision, there’s no shame in being mindful of your relationships, of your communities. If you care about people, take care not to offend them (or to make sure that the relationship is such that you’ll be able to work through the offense). Or: don’t worry about other people. Unless you want to. The choice is yours.

For me the question of self-censorship is an insidious one because it lures the artist too much into self-indulgent romantic notions about authorship and creativity that needlessly create friction between the artist and those around them. Presenting fictional narratives is a fraught, hubristic act. Things could (will) get messy. Do the best you can to make sure what you’re presenting communicates what you’re trying to communicate in the best (most beautiful, most rhetorically effective, most formally interesting) way possible and don’t worry about the rest. Until you need to worry. And then either dismiss the criticism or take it in and learn from it. Either heal and nurture the relationship or let it go. Self-censorship is not this one-time thing that violates a potentially perfect work of fiction. It’s editing. It’s an act of communication and community negotiation. It’s doing the work.

Self Censorship & Inspiration

So that’s where I’m at on the the issue of self-censorship. But I have a specifically Mormon wrinkle to add (although this may also be useful other people of faith): Let me first acknowledge that I have an instinctive distrust of writers who talk about inspiration. Not that I don’t think that it doesn’t happen (I believe that it does), but because I think it’s too often used as a label to short-circuit criticism of work that is amateurish, sentimental and/or didactic. It sets up the readers. How can you argue against inspiration? (Incidentally, the same is true of self-expression. How can you argue against expression of self?). Heck, even if it isn’t couched in terms of inspiration, I have a distrust of any special claims (this is for the good of, this accomplishes, every person like this/who is this must read this…) made on behalf of ideological work that a story is supposed to do.

But while I have an instinctive distrust of talking about it, I also believe in seeking it. It seems to me that Mormon fiction writers shouldn’t worry about self-censorship during the initial act of creation. They should create what they feel compelled to create. However, it also seems to me that they should seek inspiration before/as they create, and they should (as we’re asked to do with other choices in life) test the final work against inspiration. If that process then causes you to go back and edit the work, then do it. In other words: revelation is a way to short-circuit worry over self-censorship. If one feels good about the work as is, then it is what it should be. If one doesn’t, then changing/editing it isn’t self-censorship—it’s acting on inspiration. But here’s the trick: you must be brutally honest with yourself in the process and you have to be worthy (and, yes, that’s a loaded word; I leave what that should mean up to the individual author). You have to strive to be humble about and a skeptic of your own work. Not an easy thing to do. But I believe that it’s worth doing (even though I fail to do so over and over again and too often feel buffeted by various ideological and aesthetic winds).

But Wait: One More Thing

I’m not going to end on such a sappy (although valid and sincere) point. I have one more thought for Mormon fiction writers: self-censorship is only a problem if you have an interesting point of view. It’s only a problem if you’re suppressing or marring work that is unique and truly interesting. It’s only important if something valuable is lost when you self-censor. Most fiction writers aren’t that interesting. Before you worry about self-censorship, worry about that. I’ll expand on that harsh-seeming pronouncement in my next post: Mormon writers and courage.

* I speak mainly about U.S. Fiction writers here. The United States has lax libel laws, fairly strong freedom of speech laws, and diverse marketplaces for distributing creative work. The situation may be very different for Mormon fiction writers of other nationalities.

** And really all of us who tell stories (which means all of us).

*** Censorship and Mormon fiction is an interesting topic and were it pervasive, I could see how it could lead to widespread self-censorship among Mormon writers. We’d need verifiable data points to determine that. All those I’m aware of only pertain to employees of the Church (including CES/BYU). Andrew Hall’s comment on the post on excommunication provides a few data points. I have heard of a couple of others. But the boundaries on those aren’t clear and times change, and it’s also not clear what bearing that should have on Mormons who aren’t employees of the Church. I’d also note that employees of other major socio-cultural institutions often face some of the same issues.

The Writing Rookie #1: Why We Write; or, Jonathan Runs Out of Excuses

Wm writes: I've been after Jonathan Langford off-and-on to guest post here at AMV. In the 10 years that I've been participating on the AML-List, Jonathan has been one of the most thoughtful, interesting contributors (he also moderated it for several years). So I am delighted to bring you the first post in his The Writing Rookie series.

For the complete list of columns in this series, look here.

Author's note: This is the first in what is intended to be a series of blog posts, issued at irregular intervals, describing some of the insights and mishaps I've encountered in attempting to get started with my own creative writing. Any inclination to view these insights as in any way authoritative should be tempered by the knowledge that thus far my efforts have been untainted (as it were) with publication success . . . 

I've spent a lot of my life not-writing, or at least not-writing stories.

Back in late elementary school, I decided against a writing career, even though I loved to read. Even so, I spent a lot of time plotting out stories -- purely for my own entertainment, and as a kind of shared creative activity with my best friend. (Years later, my son did the same thing with his best friend. Now he's a math major, his songwriting and video game design purely a hobby -- or so he claims. Time will tell.)

In college, I wound up running around with the science fiction and fantasy crowd: editing the student magazine, helping to run BYU's substitute for a science fiction convention, and even participating in the same writing group as Dave Wolverton, Shayne Bell, and others who have actually gone on to become published writers. Several people complimented me on my story critiquing and editing, though my actual creative output was always low.

And then my career detoured, and instead of winding up as an English professor I became a freelance writer and editor, mostly in the field of educational technology. For health insurance and a more steady income, there was my wife's job as a math professor. For creative stuff, I participated on AML-List, wrote Christmas newsletters (I'm told that my "future projections" newsletter -- describing the accomplishments our family would like to be able to brag about in the coming year -- is a classic of its kind), and produced various other musings for the amusement of my family and friends. When that wasn't enough, I cooked (and gained weight). And the thought of creative writing receded further and further into the background.

And then I woke up one day -- strangely near my 40th birthday -- and it was like a timer had gone off. "Ding! Okay Jonathan, time to write." Continue reading "The Writing Rookie #1: Why We Write; or, Jonathan Runs Out of Excuses"